LeftEast has asked leftists from Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania and Israel to reflect on the electoral defeat of the UK Labour party, the lessons of Corbynism as a broader political project, and the way forward. This is my response.
Q: What has the Corbyn project meant – as a model, an inspiration, or otherwise – to you and people in the milieu(x) in which you organise?
My political milieu is largely defined by anti-enclosures struggles and a group of progressive and radical left political initiatives in Croatia, which have emerged out of the university occupations and Right to the City movement and have recently started to contest elections. The attraction of the Corbyn project for that milieu would be primarily in the attempt to bootstrap a transformative political project built on a mass political mobilisation under the historical conditions of a crumbling organised labour movement. This has particular relevance in the context of deindustrialised economies where the shift from manufacture to the service sector implies a fragmentation and casualisation of the working class. The service sector is largely characterised by smaller workplaces, self-employment, workfare and low productivity gains, creating patterns of stagnancy and underemployment in many industries, where profits can be gained only by making workers compete over substandard wages. The results is growing inequality and dim prospects for entrants into the labour market. Although Croatia’s political system is very different from the UK, with nationalism much more of a factor of ideological cohesion, the trajectory of post-industrial fragmentation and the problem of where to start organising a universal emancipatory project were highly relatable to us. The programme of democratic socialism is a test if this strategy could be more than a defensive one, and in our post-socialist context where the very mention of socialism immediately shifts the debate onto the terrain of the past, it is a test of whether this can be transformed into the necessary debate over the future of overcoming capitalism.
Q: What is your perspective on the recent electoral defeat in the UK? What critical lessons should your milieu, and the left in general, learn from this defeat?
I believe that the electoral strategy cannot be ignored, though it is not a political highway; Labour’s electoral defeat does indicate its limitations. Changing class composition is a paramount question for the feasibility of such a strategy. In the UK this has proven to be a hard nut to crack. Recently I conducted an interview with Unite, UK’s largest trade union, affiliated to the Labour party, which came together out of a merger of industrial trade unions that were once 6 million strong and are now reduced to a mere 1.4 million members. The fraying of these once-Behemoths and the loss of their mobilising power in working-class communities has meant that Labour had to find other strategies of addressing those communities. However, the composition of the British working class is complicated by two additional factors. First, over 9 million foreign-born people live in th the UK, among them 6 million non-citizens, and of these 2.4 million are EU nationals. Second, the privatisation and financialisation of housing through Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ has aligned parts of the older generation with financial and rentier capitalist interests. Squaring these widely differing material interests over class identity, age and property has proven impossible for Labour. It has overwhelmingly lost the Leave constituencies whom it failed to convince of the feasibility of its programme. In this the voters were not entirely wrong, as remaining in the EU would have likely limited the radical social reforms Labour promised in its manifesto. After all, Corbyn has opposed Britain’s membership in the EU and later treaties since the 1970s, due to the institutional limits they imposed on social transformation. And the track record of the EU in grappling with the social crisis in Greece and the freedom of movement on its borders is nothing but catastrophic.
From an eco-socialist perspective, the defeat of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution is an enormous setback. Promising sweeping and mutually beneficial actions on both environmental and social fronts, with the promise to attempt to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, was the most ambitious of Green New Deal-type proposals in any large economy. On this terrain, we could argue that it is too late for mere technological change and that what is needed is system change. The British elections came in the week in which the UNFCCC’s multilateralist framework for international climate action collapsed entirely. There is a slim chance that it might be given a new lease of life in the unlikely case that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren wins the presidency in the US. But if they loses, achieving a political path to an environmentally livable future while at the same time securing the wellbeing for all in an internationalist setting will likely no longer be even a remote possibility, given the decadal timescale that the world has for radical action. We have to come to terms with the growing possibility that an eco-socialist future will have to be achieved in and against the unfolding environmental barbarism.